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If you want to know if a person believes in a god, you can ask them one question to be sure: “Do you believe in a god?” But what fun is that? Luckily, some recent research suggests that maybe you can also find out in a slightly sneakier way by asking three questions:
- A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
- If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
- In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?
I’ll let you think those over before I give you the answers.
Psychologists in Vancouver asked 179 college students those questions before surveying them about their religious beliefs. They found that religious people tended to answer the questions intuitively (incorrectly) while nonreligious people tended to answer analytically (correctly).
You might boil that down to “nonreligious people are smarter than religious people” but it’s more interesting than that. The researchers also found that they could reduce religiosity in people by encouraging analytical thinking. This included showing people photos of “The Thinker” sculpture (as compared to control sculptures that didn’t show contemplation). In another test, subjects played verbal fluency games that included analytical words like “reason,” “think,” and “rational” (as compared to control words like “hammer,” “shoes,” and “jump”). In each circumstance, the group that was primed for analytical thinking reported lower religious belief in questions that followed.
My favorite of the tests, though, was the last one. Previous studies have suggested that you can secretly activate a person’s analytical thinking and help them do better on questions like the ones I asked earlier just by writing them out in a font that’s difficult to read, including using different size words and lighter-colored words.
So in the last test, the researchers had subjects answer questions about their religious beliefs in either a bold, easy-to-read font or a smaller, italicized, light grey font. Sure enough, the harder-to-read surveys showed people reporting less religiosity.
Imagine how many atheists we might be able to create if we could print up a bunch of Bibles in Zapfina! And then convince a bunch of Christians to actually read it. It’s hard enough to get many Christians to read the Bible in a decent font, which is probably also why there are so many Christians still. Nothing makes an atheist faster than the Bible.
As usual, caveats apply to this study. It’s just one study, and involves fewer than 200 people, and all those people are college students in Canada. Much more research is needed to be able to better tell what the connection is between analytical thinking and religiosity, and whether bad font choices can make people forgo their god. Though now that I’m thinking of it more, I bet a lot of people came out of Avatar thinking that there is no god.
I’ll close by giving you the answers to the questions I posed earlier.
- A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? $.05. The “intuitive” answer is $.10.
- If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? 5 minutes. “Intuitive”: 100 minutes.
- In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? 47 days. “Intuitive”: 24 days.
How did you do?